The Art of the Thanksgiving Table

FVCC chef Manda Hudak gives tips and hints for creating the perfect, personal holiday table setting for the biggest food day of the year

By Molly Priddy
Manda Hudak's table art on Nov. 13, 2015. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Ever since humans have built culture or a sense of community, food has been an integral means of communication. It can be a peace offering, a message of friendship, or a warm hug of comfort extended in tough times.

A meal can communicate anything we want, and Thanksgiving is arguably the biggest stage for Americans’ food during the holidays. With that in mind, former professional caterer and current chef instructor Manda Hudak has a few thoughts about the table settings presenting the food.

Hudak, the savory instructor at Flathead Valley Community College’s Culinary Institute, believes the table setting has as much to say as the food. It’s an opportunity to get creative and artistic with the holiday, which she says is all about family and friends and harvest.

“This isn’t a polished holiday,” Hudak said in her Lower Valley home last week. “It’s a rustic holiday, compared to New Years or Christmas.”

Hudak’s table settings are simple yet complementary, with food playing a role as decoration as well as edible delight. In one centerpiece, Hudak used clementines, brussel sprouts, and a bisected beet placed in a bowl. Surrounding that, hazelnuts spread around the table.

Her designs are clean and elegant, yet they still give off hominess and that comfortable feeling found when the weather turns colder and a warm table with friends is the only remedy.

Hudak grew up in Ohio, where her parents threw “epic parties on a shoestring.” That’s how she learned to use what she already had at home to design table settings, which give her table presentations a familiar feel and helped propel her to the upper echelon of catering work in Los Angeles and at exclusive, private clubs in Florida.

She moved to the Flathead full time in 2012 after marrying a Montanan in 2008. Hudak worked for Montana Coffee Traders for a stretch before settling at FVCC, where she instructs the next generation of food professionals.

And aside from exuding the general feeling of being welcome, Hudak has some objective advice for hosts preparing their tables for Thanksgiving.

“There should be things that have been in [your] house and just re-gathered for the table setting.”

Hudak’s designs often incorporate dishes or table runners she already owns. It makes the setting feel familiar, but also shows the host put some thought into the meal and how it should be presented.

“You don’t have to buy it from a florist.”

When building centerpieces, Hudak finds inspiration in her natural surroundings and kitchen. Broccoli flowers mixed with local thistles can combine for a lovely, complementary design as well as traditional flowers.

“It should be fun; do it a week in advance.”

Hudak promotes a host giving themselves permission to get creative, and spending time with their table setting about a week in advance to be fully prepared.

“Condiments can be part of the presentation.”

Pickling vegetables or making compotes for the bread ahead of time signals to a guest that the host has put thought and energy into every detail, Hudak said. And even if the condiments are store bought, they can still be presented in a lovely manner.

“Put flavor into anything.”

This mostly applies to beverage options, Hudak said. Hosts should have a non-alcoholic version of whatever cocktail they serve already thought up and prepared for, such as putting clementine slices into seltzer water.

“The Internet is such a resource.”

If you’ve got an idea but aren’t sure how to execute it, there’s a good chance someone else has thought of it too. Check online for ideas, Hudak said.

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